Time to regulate web based media channels in J&K

Ranjit Parihar
The number of web based news media channels in Jammu and Kashmir has been mushrooming from last couple of years . According to an estimate, there are over 100 pages on Facebook and other social media channels from Jammu & Kashmir positioned as media organizations and are disseminating information of all kinds. Excluding some almost majority of them do not have any kind of license or approval from any authority to run a media organization. Some of these outlets have created a web-based portal for publishing news content. However, most of them are operating as merely social media handles on various platforms.
In an infodemic era, when the menace of fake news is at an all time high, most of these so-called media outlets go unregulated. The UT Government has claimed that it is planning to regulate them only after it receives the guidelines regarding the same from the Centre. We know that all (news portals) are not genuine. People are opening up channels just sitting at home and many are spreading fake news but no one is there to tame them .It is quite astonishing that even administration and vital institutions in the UT invite them to cover their routine programme putting privacy and secrecy of these offices at risk .
Needless to say, the media industry has been badly hit by the Covid-19 pandemic resulting in a number of layoffs; salary cuts have been reported in many organizations across the country. In J&K too, many news organisations have reportedly laid off employees and shut down operations. But amidst this chaos in the industry, there are a number of news portals coming up in the UT.
After the advent of social media, the process has become further easy as the cost of production and dissemination of news is much lesser compared to electronic or print media houses. The social media head of a prominent print and digital publication in J&k said “You just need a computer and an internet connection to start a new media channel. There is no paper work required.”He also said that even if a website is not in place, people are running news channels using social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. “This of course comes with its own problems of disseminating incorrect information, amateur news content and plagiarism.
Recently In view of mushrooming of news portals on social media in Jammu and Kashmir without following the procedure governing the field, High Court has sought response from Government with regard to running of these portals in a Public Interest Litigation which has been filed about the mushrooming growth of news agencies on social media especially the news portals which are involved in circulating fake news.
It is alleged in the plea that in the Union Territory, several news portals are operating freely without any registration or license from any authority and these news portals are not under supervision and control of any authority whatsoever. Division Bench of Chief Justice Pankaj Mithal and Justice Sanjay Dhar of High court of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh has called upon the respondents to file response specifically pointing out to provisions of law under which such news portals, if at all are required to be registered or licensed and if so whether the above news portals are running with due permission in accordance with law and whether any agency is examining the contents of the news circulated by these news portals and has sought reply in this regard within one month.
Court has sought the response to the plea from Principal Secretary Information, Divisional Commissioner Kashmir, Divisional Commissioner Jammu and Director Information Jammu & Kashmir. Court has been informed that there are multiple news agencies and Whatsapp, Facebook, You Tube news channels and other electronic news agencies operating in both the regions which are actively engaged in the transmission of various types of news bulletins and reports.
Petitioner in his PIL has added, that every person with a hanging camera and holding a mic poses himself as a journalist irrespective of the fact whether she/he is authorized and permitted to work as journalist and whether he or she has the requisite qualification. In absence of any permission having been granted by the competent authority for running a news portal, it is sufficient to infer that there is no proper, legal and regulatory mechanism in place at present, with the result a state of confusion prevails on the subject as to the genuineness of any news transmitted by such channels/ portals. The Facebook and WhatsApp journalists have now moved a step ahead by blackmailing the government as well as private officials, civil contractors etc. on a daily basis.
In PIL petitioner has sought two reliefs to curb the mushrooming of news portals: one is to designate a regulatory authority for grant of permissions to the social media news channels,networks, pages, portals and the authorities not to allow any social media news network, agency, page, portal to function without proper license, permission.
Keeping in view the problems society is facing problems due to mushrooming of uncontrolled un checked News portals ,Like print and electronic media, the accountability quotient seems to be missing when it comes to most of the digital news platforms. For the democratic functioning of the society, freedom of press and media is fundamental. However, no freedom can be absolute, similarly, the freedom provided to the press is subject to certain restrictions and regulations.
To keep check on mushrooming of portals ,the information and broadcasting ministry (MIB) had formed a committee with representatives from various ministries to draft regulations for digital media companies in 2018. Registrar of Newspapers for India (RNI) is a statutory body of the information and broadcasting ministry of the government of India for the registration of publications such as newspapers and magazines, which regulates and monitors their printing and publication based on the PRB Act and the Registration of Newspapers (Central) Rules, 1956.
In 2019, the Central Government had proposed a bill to regulate social media.The Draft Registration of Press and Periodicals Bill, 2019, seeks to replace the Press and Registration of Books (PRB) Act, 1867, that governs the print and publishing industry in the country. The bill seeks to get away with all the earlier provisions of the PRB Act, 1867, enabling the Central and State Government to formulate appropriate rules and regulations to regulate the criteria, conditions for issuing Government advertisements in newspapers, accreditation of newspapers and such other facilities for newspapers. Through the draft bill, the Ministry proposed to simplify the registration procedure by creating a Press Registrar General along with laying down a simple system of registration of e-papers.
I think it’s high time for the Government to devise a mechanism to regulate the web news portals which are mushrooming thick and fast, and in the absence of any guidelines or regulation specific to news portals and their operation, it is only encouraging the culture of paid news in the country.

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